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Appalachian Sustainable Development: Helping Rewrite the Appalachian Narrative

By Sylvia Crum

Appalachian Sustainable DevelopmentAs a Midwestern transplant, I am often reminded of how others that don’t live in our region think about Central Appalachia. Unfortunately, often times those who have never visited here think they understand the families that live here and the challenges we face.

In a recent piece written by Aaron Phelps, Senior Media Producer at Fahe, a nonprofit membership network dedicated to eliminating persistent poverty in Appalachia, Phelps attempts to change the conversation about Appalachia by showcasing it in a more positive light. He explains Fahe’s position that we can do more by working together within our common interests. When a national media partner planned to come to the region to do a story, Phelps and his team agreed to talk about Appalachia and poverty, but with these conditions:

They would not visit only the poorest people. Appalachia has a widely diverse population and not all people face poverty in the same degree. Not everyone who is facing hard times lives in a dilapidated trailer. The face of poverty is not the caricature that people have been shown over the years. That misrepresentation has to stop.

They would not discuss poverty without discussing the solution. It’s a disservice and a cause of hopelessness to only showcase what’s wrong without discussing the efforts of the many organizations, local leaders, people, and politicians working to alleviate this issue. The people of Appalachia have heart and have real solutions coming from inside our borders. We’re making real progress. Yes, we do have less of an advantage than other areas of the country. Yes, we could use more support from outside groups. But we will never have people willing to invest in this area of the country if they think it’s a lost cause, and the portrayal of many media outlets paints us as just that.

They would not exploit addiction. Never will they take media for a photo op of someone using drugs.  They will not showcase someone in need and exploit them when they are sick or at their lowest.

They will not discuss drug abuse without discussing the solution. There are many dedicated individuals and organizations who are working toward solutions. There are drug addiction recovery clinics that are making a difference in thousands of people’s lives. There are systems put in place not only to help people get over drugs, but to help them stay clean, transition into new environments to escape the cycle, and gain access to job training and life skills coaching. There are even ways for people to mentor and help those who suffer like they once did.

They will show the hope that is in Appalachia. They demand that someone talk about the opportunities for a change instead of perpetuating the stereotypes and hopelessness just to further their selfish agenda.

I applaud Phelps and Fahe for their efforts to change the perceptions about our region. As nonprofits, we don’t celebrate and discuss the good we see as often as we should. This is true not just in Appalachia but in rural America in general. We have the responsibility to let people know that we are not a lost cause. We are not on the brink of despair. There is real, positive change that happens here every day. We should celebrate that while discussing the needs that still exist. If we want people to respect us and feel that Appalachia is something worth investing in, we have to rewrite the narrative.

About Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD)
Nationally known and respected for its commitment to local farmers, Appalachian Sustainable Development is transitioning Appalachia to a more resilient economy and a healthier population by supporting local agriculture, exploring new economic opportunities and connecting people with healthy food. Since 1995, ASD has served 15 counties in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. As ASD’s work continues, it will expand its focus to include regional partnerships that build important connections to increase market access and bring necessary resources to the rural communities in its physical footprint. ASD operates programs that create jobs in farming and agriculture and address food insecurity. To learn more, go to asdevelop.org or visit Facebook or Twitter.

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